Friday, March 18, 2011

Football Analysis : The Azkals take a step back against Mongolia in Ulan Bator

Note : This first appeared in the award-winning sports blog, Fire Quinito on March  17, 2011.

In the end, we lost the battle, but we won the war. But not before we had some unnecessarily tense moments out there.

Did the weather play a major factor in the Azkals loss to Mongolia in the second leg of its AFC Challenge Cup playoff in Ulan Bator? Absolutely. 

Experts say that it’s easier to play from cold weather to hot weather, than it is the other way around. We don’t like to make excuses and I am sure the sub-zero weather provides a very, very convenient excuse. But, in this case, let us cut the Azkals some slack.

Of the Azkals who played in Mongolia, only Ray Jonsson is based in Europe, where this kind of cold weather is the norm. The Younghusbands, although half-British, are now based in Manila. Some of the Azkals may have experienced cold weather before, but most of them have not had the chance to play a knockout game of football under those conditions.

We also need to remember the tragedy in Japan, where the Azkals trained prior to the game. Witnessing first-hand the death and destruction around you was surely harrowing, and it would be difficult to focus on the game. After all, the substantial loss of life and the destruction of the earthquake and tsunamis put the game in perspective, doesn’t it? Not to mention all the issues the Azkals encountered en route to Mongolia: lost luggage, delayed and diverted flights, missing passports, and even missing players.

That said, could the Azkals have played better, given the abovementioned conditions? Absolutely.

Going to a second leg, with a two-goal cushion, the Azkals already were in the driver’s seat in this tie. The early goal in the first five minutes provided the Azkals with a dream start. This further increased our lead to 3-0 on aggregate, and gave the Mongolians an even deeper hole to climb out of.

Unfortunately, we did not settle down after that goal. We did not hold the ball, or keep possession long enough. Instead, we played as if we were the ones chasing the game, and they were the ones with a three goal lead. It took almost 60 minutes into the game for us to warm-up and string together coherent passes, it seemed. In hindsight, could it have been that we were too confident and complacent?

We left wide open spaces at the back for our opponent to exploit, whereas we could’ve kept it nice and tight and made life miserable for an already desperate Mongolia. Instead, we conceded a cheap first goal, which gave them hope. 

I lost count of the number of times I thought, ‘We were lucky there!’ That statement couldn’t have been truer than during midway through the second half. The Blue Wolves, leading 2-1, hit the crossbar with the goal at their mercy. We got off the hook in that instance. A 3-1 lead for them would’ve still put us through, but we would really have endured more tense moments down the stretch.

Coach Weiss might have wanted to continue with his new look attacking formation, but in my humble opinion, with a three goal lead away from home and in freezing temperatures, we should have sat tight, defended stoutly, and hit them on the counter – which was how we played last December. 

Not only were playing with our second-choice second choice goalkeeper between the sticks, this was also the first official pairing in central defence of Aly Borromeo and Jason Sabio. All signs point to the fact that we should’ve just kept our shape and defended our lead, our new attacking style of play be damned.

Mongolia had a brilliant strategy going into the two legs: Defend stoutly away from home and minimize damage in an unfriendly environment (Panaad); and attack, attack, attack in their home turf, where the opponent will likely freeze up from the unfamiliar weather (Ulaan Bator). The Azkals’ game plan, on the other hand, seemingly was just to attack at every opportunity, regardless of the situation.

Jason Sabio had an impressive debut last February 9, but he was very uncomfortable in this game. He was culpable and directly responsible for the second Mongolia goal. There were missed calls for offside in the first goal, but ultimately the defence should’ve done better. For the second goal, he looked off the pace, and had to pull down the Mongolian attacker. He was a very lucky boy not to be sent off for that challenge.

The million dollar question after the game was : Would Neil Etheridge have done a better job than Eduard Sacapano?

He would’ve been more accustomed to the cold, being based in London. His commanding frame would really have been an asset for the Azkal defense, plus he’s a bonafide rising star in the Barclays Premier League, being the third choice keeper for Fulham FC. In contrast, Eduard brought with him his experience on the field, albeit for the local United Football League in the Philippines. 

For the first Mongolia goal, would Neil have rushed out to grab the loose ball, thereby distracting Donorov Lumbengarav and preventing the goal? Neil has a penchant for rushing out of his box and mixing it up with opposing strikers. For the second Mongolia goal, would Neil have been able to catch the shot cleanly, or would he have pushed it away for a harmless corner? Eduard tried to snatch the ball, and it bounced back to the penalty taker for the easy tap in.

Eduard, to his credit, actually saved the spot kick. He was also very calm on the ball, especially in the second half. This Neil vs. Eduard debate could go on and on. Suffice to say, I am sure everyone is looking forward to Neil coming back in goal for the qualifying stages in Myanmar.

Coach Rudy del Rosario said it in the panel: With the jittery first half showing of our back four, wouldn’t it have been a ‘Weiss’ call to move Anton del Rosario to central defence to partner Aly Borromeo? After all, these two guys have known each other for a very long time, on and off the pitch. Anton del Rosario actually plays Central Defence for his club Kaya FC, so it wouldn’t be a new position to him.

Jason Sabio has not developed an understanding with Aly Borromeo yet. This kind of understanding is evident when Rob Gier and Aly anchored the defense in Panaad. Rob would track back whenever Aly joined the attack. This kind of understanding takes time to develop, time which Jason and Aly did not have going into Ulan Bator.

Roel Gener for me was the Man of the Match. A versatile right-footed player, he held the left back spot with aplomb, frequently disrupting Mongolia’s attack. Time and again, he thwarted Mongolia’s attack on their right, and he got a red shirt thrown on him from the crowd for all his troubles.

Simon Greatwich’s greatest contribution to the game was his yellow card for his two-footed tackle on 59 minutes, which was very poor from Simon. Occupying the central midfield slot, he should’ve been more influential. Time to bounce back in Myanmar!

Chieffy Caligdong was again a livewire down the left flank. His surging runs paved the way for numerous half chances. His decision making, though, is sometimes a bit suspect. You would not be very far from the truth to say that he went for glory a few times, when making the extra pass to a teammate would’ve been the easier and the correct option.

Ian Araneta still hasn’t broken his scoring drought, but he deserves more service than he is getting now. Remember he just came off an injury that caused him to miss club games for Air Force Rider in the UFL. His work rate is still top notch, and he almost scored a goal from nowhere in the second half.

Coach Weiss has got his work cut out for him. Now is the time for him to earn his euros. He has to build the team around the ‘team’ concept once again. The problem with media (and not just locally) is that we celebrate the goal scorers, but we often neglect the people who do the assisting, the tackling, the dirty job. This is crucial, especially when it is more practical to pass to an open teammate rather than shoot for a goal that would make the highlight reels.

This defeat should serve us in good stead in the long run. Not a few people have commented that the Azkals have been overrated and given way too much attention. This may have gotten into their heads, and perhaps a defeat here is a necessary evil to bring the high-flying Azkals back down to earth. This should provide a reality check that defeat to a nation ranked way below them in the FIFA Standings is very possible, with the wrong attitude.

Hopefully, this is just a classic case of one step backward and two steps forward en route to the AFC Challenge Cup in 2012.

Credits to Coach Rudy del Rosario for the insightful inputs. Let's support the Homeless World Cup Philippine Team!

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